You know that sweet old lady? The one leaning on her cart and smiling behind you in the grocery line. The one who – despite seeing you struggle as you make pointless attempts to wrangle your unwieldy, crying children – has that look in her eye. That rose-colored glaze of an idealized, selectively skewed memory as she mouths the words in slow motion, “Enjoy every moment.”
Every moment? This moment? Do you see my noodle-limp, screaming child flinging, oozing, and flash-painting every negative, heightened emotion all over everything??? Are you for real, or just a bit delusional? And don’t just smile, do something.
Well, hold up. Can she really be that out of touch with reality? And if not, what exactly could she mean?
It’s easy to brush the sweet old lady off. She’s chosen to remember the best. She’s forgotten the pain. She means well, but she doesn’t understand how her words sting. She doesn’t get that her advice is, well, bad. Right? Maybe.
I’ve read lots of blogs attempting to explain this phenomenon. There’s the perspective that “You chose this, don’t complain.” Basically – you got pregnant, suck it up, do this Parenting thing. And like it. Then there is the perspective that, “Yes, most moments are hard/joyless/painful even, but focus on the special times.” Essentially – parenting is really effing hard (also known as RFHP), but enjoy a couple of kairoses a day – stand still moments that unbind you from time and make you pause. I mean, yeah – both of these are pretty true. Still, they leave me feeling a lot bit crappy.
Maybe there’s more wisdom to the little old lady’s words than we know. Maybe she sees a bigger reality.
I’ve labored and birthed twice now. After the first experience, I described the pain as “an undiscovered circle of Dante’s Hell.” I believed my incoherent delirious state was a glimpse into Torture. I was to-the-core scared to ever go through that process again. Despite all this, within hours of giving birth the second time around, I claimed, “I want to do that again.” No, really. Right now. I want that. I need that. It was breath-stealing amazing, and I have to do that again.
Was the pain the same?
Oh yes. Maybe even worse the second time.
How could the same pain be experienced in such polar opposite ways? What if we could do the same with parenting? There’s a whole lot of difficulty, tiredness, joylessness . . . pain . . . in parenting. But what if reality were multi-dimensional? What if we could live a little less in the pain quadrant and a little more in the joy quadrant? What if every reality had a little bit of both? And what if we could “in joy” our experience?
I know, it’s rose-colored and fake seeming to suggest that we just find the joy in each moment. That’s not what I mean. I mean that every moment possesses rich dimension. And we can play around with where to place our focus. Interestingly enough, what you pay attention to has a profound impact on your experience of time, your perception of reality, your emotions, and even memory.
I’ll give you a somewhat innocuous example.
While the adults were bustling around in the kitchen, my nine month old found the Costco-sized bottles of olive oil and balsamic. Though we’d never seen him unscrew a lid, he deftly removed both in a matter of seconds. Quietly (because it’s always silent), he emptied half the contents in a large puddle around himself. Because he’d been “a little too quiet” for over a minute, the collective adult awareness shifted. “Where’s the baby?”
My memory of that scene could have been pain. Anger at the mess to clean up. Regret at the wasted money and resources. Frustration at having to field an impromptu bath. Angst at searching the house for all baby accessible twist caps. Negativity toward the baby for creating such a hassle. And I had all of these thoughts!
But here’s what I also noticed. And here’s where I spent my focus.
How sweet the balsamic smelled! The wonder and joy in my child’s face at experiencing gravity, new textures, new abilities. The laughter of the adults. The reminder that all things – oil, balsamic, clothes, flooring – are just things. The reality that accepting what “is” brings such peace. Thankfulness for a family that seamlessly works together. I made a conscious decision to live my focus here.
Living that moment “in joy” didn’t deny the pain of it. Nor did it stop me from hopping over to the quadrant of pain every now and then. (Much of that balsamic/oil blend is, by this time, nicely congealed out of reach under my stove. You know, because, feed the ants.) But making conscious attempts to step back into joy and spend my time there changed my emotions, my perception of time, and my memory of the event. I can still smell the balsamic.
My experience so far is that parenting is a lot like labor. There is undeniable and inescapable pain. And we are committed. Like the pig at breakfast (think sausage), there is no going back – we are fundamentally and forever transformed. We aren’t getting out of this journey, and we must walk forward. So why not play with focus? Is there a downside to spending a little more time in the joy quadrant?
No matter how I try, I remember my first labor as Dante’s Hell. To a degree, I simply can’t reframe – I can’t change where I spent time in my quadrants of reality. I can’t change my emotional experience. But I know differently now. I know that it doesn’t have to be that way – because I tried it again and did it a different way.
We are in a constant state of bringing our children into being. Of witnessing. Of teaming. Of walking parallel and fused paths. We get chance after chance to play with focus. To change our experience of reality. Reality is multidimensional – and all dimensions deserve acknowledgement. We don’t need to deny pain. But we don’t really have to live in it to the extent that we often do. We can live a greater percentage of reality “in joy”. If we pay attention.
The little old lady sees your unwieldy child. I’m convinced she does. Age doesn’t make us blind to reality. But her focus is different. She sees children unfolding. She knows their story is bigger and is mostly untold. She knows this moment is rich and fleeting. She is your witness, and her smile is her love and support for you, a kindred spirit. She sees all dimensions of reality, and probably spends a little more time in joying every moment.